I'm notorious for taking shortcuts, even though they frequently don't work out. This fatal flaw is often reflected in my cooking; in fact a friend once gave me an excellent risotto recipe and -- knowing that I had never before made risotto -- Gwen wrote in large, bold letters at the top: DON'T DUMP IN ALL THE LIQUID AT ONCE. I KNOW YOU'LL WANT TO DO THIS, BUT DON'T. IT WILL END IN DISASTER.
Of course, Gwen knows me well and knew that that would be my inclination; why would I slowly add just a quarter-cup or so of chicken stock at a time to the rice, while stirring? However, on that occasion, I did follow her instructions and it turned out fine -- but that slow approach went against all my North American instincts to seek out shortcuts, especially when cooking. I confess: I come from a family that favours cooking with Hamburger Helper and Stovetop Stuffing.
So, when I decided to host a little dinner party Saturday night, to test some of the recipes I had learned in my cooking class last month with Letizia in Assisi (the subject of earlier posts here) I made up my mind that I wouldn't try to find shortcuts.
I vowed I would pre-cook the pasta; make the slow-simmered tomato-meat sauce as Letizia instructed; I would make my own bruschette topping; and would literally whip up her ricotta-honey mousse (to be served with strawberries which I would marinate in balsamic) for dessert.
I think it all turned out beautifully, for once, and I really attribute this to Letizia's good recipes and the fact that I attempted (in my limited way) to cook as I think Italians do: thoughtfully, carefully and without many shortcuts.
The top photo is of the finished, but not-yet-cooked product: six layers of meat sauce; a bechamel sauce seasoned with a lot of uncertainty; sprinklings of mozzarella, Italian ham, parmesan, and of course, fresh pasta (which proved surprisingly difficult to find!)
I had never before made a lasagne, and when Letizia proposed this recipe as the main course for our cooking class (at her agriturismo, Alla Madonna del Piatto) I thought it sounded like a great idea. I like main course dishes that you prepare ahead of time because, as a single host, I find it's challenging enough to greet guests, take coats, get everyone a drink, etc., etc., without also attempting to put the finishing touches on the main course at the same time.
I was determined to follow Letizia's instructions very, very closely -- no cheating or substitutions. I simmered the meat sauce for a good four hours, gradually reducing it to a fairly thick texture. I carefully (and nervously) made the bechamel sauce, my first ever. I really didn't think I could do it without lumps or a weird texture. But, thanks to Letizia's tips, it came out beautifully.
I was even able to leave the completed lasagne to sit in the fridge for several hours before cooking, to give it some time to pull itself together. Letizia tells me that it's even better if the lasagne can sit in the fridge overnight -- I'll try that next time.
Finding the right pasta posed a surprising challenge. I searched all over Ottawa, but found only precooked lasagne sheets -- that is, the type that are placed directly into the lasagne and cook altogether with the other ingredients.
I was tempted by these and even bought some at an Italian food store where staff convinced me that they were great. However, I remained skeptical. I had heard the pre-cooked pasta sheets were risky because they can have an odd texture and soak up a lot of sauce during baking, potentially leaving the finished lasagne dry and chewy.
I didn't think Letizia would ever use a pre-cooked product and so, ultimately I went out again in search of fresh lasagne pasta that I could cook myself before use. I finally found a pasta shop which didn't have any lasagne sheets available, but did have fresh pasta sheets for cannoli. These were about half the size of a regular lasagne sheet, but they worked. I boiled them for 3 minutes and found they actually fit just fine in my lasagne pan -- perhaps it looked a bit like a checkerboard, but whatever.
Here is how the first layer looked, sitting on top a thin coating of tomato-meat sauce at the very bottom of the pan.
I think the appetizer bruschette also turned out really well. I used a new olive oil from Tuscany to brush on thick slices of baguette; toasted these under the broiler for a few minutes (singing a couple, I must admit;) then spread them with a topping I had made from minced garlic and fresh basil, chopped tomatoes and olive oil. I rebroiled these for a minute. I pulled the half-cooked lasagne out of the oven during the bruschette broiling process, but it didn't seem to mind the interruption.
Unfortunately, as guests arrived I became so busy that I forgot to take any more photos. Ooops. That means this bruschetta shot is from the Internet but seriously, that's how mine looked.
Even the whipped ricotta mousse held its shape and presented quite well.
So, friends be warned: I may have found the all-purpose dinner-party, bring-to-potlucks, funerals, birthday parties, whatever-the-occasion recipes.
I hope everyone like lasagne.